Thursday, September 1, 2016

Guest Moodler: Our journey to solar energy

Here's a first -- my hubby, Lee, is today's guest moodler, here to tell you about our 24 panel solar installation...

Our Journey To Solar Energy

I am writing this post in response to a number of people asking for more information about our family’s recent residential solar electric installation and for others who might benefit from our perspectives and learnings as they make similar individual choices. As it turned out, this journey was about improved energy, environmental, and food sustainability.

Our journey began about a decade ago when I attended a solar energy society event. During this event, the speaker noted that home owners should try to increase their energy efficiency to the maximum extent possible and reduce consumption before even considering a solar installation. Although not as glamorous as putting in a new solar system, energy efficiency has a number of key benefits:
  • it has immediate and substantial financial payback in terms of ongoing savings offering a better business case before even considering solar
  • it reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing energy use from emissive sources
  • it has made our 1950’s vintage house more comfortable i.e. warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.  
  • it translates into lower first capital costs for solar systems since they can be sized smaller.
Along our journey we took a number of steps:
  • 2004/2005 -- upgraded a largely under insulated basement with up to R20 of insulation added.
  • 2005 -- upgraded old aluminum slider windows to triple glazed windows (R6 to 8).  South facing windows had a lower R-value to allow for more light and heat to enter the house during the winter.
  • 2006 -- removed old stucco and installed siding with R12 insulation on the exterior
  • 2007 -- upgraded attic insulation from R30 to R60; converted nearly all lights to fluorescent or LED; began drying as many clothes as possible on an outside clothes line, reducing electric dryer use substantially. (Clothes dryers can add up to 15% to an electrical bill in a given month.)
  • 2009 -- installed a 95% efficient natural gas furnace (old one was ~80% efficient); installed a high efficiency washer (went from a 134 kwh/month top load model to a 187 kwh/year front load model). Washed items were not as wet upon completion of the wash cycle, allowing for the use of an inside clothes line which not only further reduced electric dryer use and but also humidified our home during the dry winter months.
  • 2013 -- upgraded an old shed to be a cold-weather greenhouse to grow more garden food and bedding plants – reduced gardening and food costs and increased the amount of high quality local food produced.  This shed uses 100% green electricity.
This process of retrofits and improvements had a cumulative yearly effect on both gas and electrical energy consumption in our home. From utility records, I compiled two charts showing these gains over 12 years with the most dramatic gains achieved in the early years. Our consumption of natural gas dropped from 160 GigaJoules per year to about 70 GJ (more than 50%) and our electrical consumption went from over 6000 kilowatt hours per year to just under 4000 kWh (about 35%). Gains seen by others taking similar steps may vary depending upon their specific circumstances e.g. existing house insulation levels, existing furnace efficiency, natural solar gain etc..

Further Considerations 

I would also like to acknowledge that getting to a position where our household uses 100% green electricity (and biomass sourced natural gas) could not have been done without emerging utility company green energy program offerings. About 7 years ago we signed up for the Bull Frog Power program and last year switched over to a new EPCOR CHIRP green electricity program (and the EPCOR Encor green gas program) to further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This choice was made so that all the electricity consumed from the grid (or natural gas system) was from greener sources i.e. non or lower-GHG emissive impact.

The residential solar electric system we installed this spring (2016) is grid-connected, meaning that any electricity needed in the house and not produced by the solar panels is drawn from the electrical grid. During the night or in cloudy periods of the day when the solar panels are not producing enough electricity, we are using electricity from the grid. Any excess solar electric system energy produced by our house system is returned to the grid (with microgeneration credits received from EPCOR to recognize this contribution).

When considering solar electric system sizing, how the electrical utility company green program offerings are used is an important consideration. Some home owners may conclude that using such green program offerings are both an economic and practical alternative to installing a solar electric system. In our case, we initially chose this option for a quite a few years as the costs for solar electric systems continued to drop. This option has the added benefit in that it helps finance the increased build-up of the overall green energy capacity in the electrical system that will in turn be available to more consumers.

This year we decided to install a solar electric system because we believe this is now a better mid-term choice for our specific situation. Going forward, we plan to continue to utilize the green programs, but on a smaller scale. There are many possible deployment configurations. For solar installations, sizing impacts the desired amount of up front capital investment (payment plans are available as well), the cost per watt of the deployed system, and how much ongoing use of green electricity programs will be needed to fill any remaining gaps in electrical consumption.

Over time our family’s journey has progressed along inherently related and self-reinforcing pathways:

1) An economic/technological path: As our family pursued energy efficiency and related green/clean technologies the overall objective was not only to reduce overall living expenses, but also to live “lighter” on the planet. Monthly utility and food costs have been reduced.

2) An environmental/food sustainability path: Increasing environmental and food sustainability involved not only improved use of energy, but also a number of other changes including expanding our backyard garden, retrofitting an old garden shed to become a cold weather greenhouse and catching and utilizing rainwater to help water the garden.

3) A social path of changing personal practices and sharing them within a broader community: An important part of a household’s energy and environmental performance depends upon personal choices. For us, such choices have included a much greater use of clothes lines to dry clothes (electric dryer usage has decreased at least 80%), turning the thermostat down significantly at night, choosing to grow more food in the garden versus grocery purchases (lower costs and transportation-related emissions and higher quality local food), and turning off and unplugging electrical appliances and lights when not in use, to name just a few.

By sharing our experience, I hope that it will benefit a growing number of other people as they make their own personal choices.  And so the journey continues…

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below.

Here's our CO2 offset for the past month...

Maria's note: Our solar array began its work on June 1, 2016. To date, our carbon offsets are 217 gallons of gas, 96 trees, and 1919 kg of carbon emissions. Plus we haven't paid for electricity for the past three months -- we are being paid. 

Depending on market forces, it might take 20 years for the system to pay itself off, but we're not worried about that. We just want to reduce our impact on the earth now because our planet is warming too quickly. It's fun to watch the carbon offsets add up!

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